Manic mum rocked my world

Gary Far­row talks about his en­dur­ing friend­ship with the late mother of a found­ing mem­ber of Manic Street Preach­ers, the band that pro­vided his life’s sound­track.

Sunday Star-Times - - FOCUS | ENTERTAINMENT -

Stand­ing in bustling Cardiff Rail­way Sta­tion I couldn’t be­lieve what an ad­ven­ture I was on.

It was 2015, and I was fi­nally meet­ing Irene Jones. We were pen friends – avidly send­ing let­ters, cards and gifts back and forth be­tween New Zealand and Wales for years. That day, I was fi­nally go­ing to meet her.

To un­der­stand this friend­ship, un­der­stand my univer­sity days.

My daily sound­track was the Manic Street Preach­ers. I wanted to be­come a po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist and lyrics from the po­lit­i­cally-charged band res­onated.

For the unini­ti­ated, the Man­ics re­leased their first al­bum in 1991. They were po­lit­i­cally out­spo­ken, shar­ing in their lis­ten­ers’ ex­is­ten­tial strug­gles with cul­ture, alien­ation, bore­dom and de­spair. I bought ev­ery one of their al­bums, and amassed as many sin­gles as pos­si­ble – well over 50 CDs – all the while dream­ing of see­ing them live. The Man­ics ended up play­ing in Mel­bourne days af­ter my last-ever pol­i­tics exam. It was 2010.

It was at that show my po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion came full cir­cle, as the band played hits like A De­sign for Life, Mo­tor­cy­cle Empti­ness and Your Love Alone is Not Enough. The next day I be­friended a woman named Sarah Coady, an­other Kiwi who had flown over es­pe­cially. We recog­nised each other from the show – both elated, but ex­hausted.

We met up again in 2013, at the Man­ics’ only New Zealand show.

Lead­ing up to the con­cert, bFM, Auck­land’s al­ter­na­tive ra­dio sta­tion where I vol­un­teered, gave me a face-to-face in­ter­view with Nick Jones of the Man­ics, known by the stage name Nicky Wire. As the bass player and pri­mary lyri­cist for the band, he was re­spon­si­ble for the po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary in their mu­sic that had made such an im­pres­sion on me.

I told him I used to re­gard my­self as a Marx­ist when I be­gan lis­ten­ing to them at 17. At two me­tres-plus tall, he grinned down at me and said: ‘‘That’s how the best of us start.’’

Af­ter the the Man­ics left the coun­try, some­thing pe­cu­liar hap­pened. Sarah re­ceived a Face­book mes­sage from a woman claim­ing to be Irene Jones, Nick’s mum. Scep­ti­cal, Sarah and I re­sponded, then un­aware that Irene had a habit of mes­sag­ing her son’s fans. Even­tu­ally, Irene asked for our postal ad­dresses.

Soon we re­ceived en­velopes from Wales, cov­ered in cute stick­ers. They con­tained pho­tos of the Man­ics signed by all the band mem­bers, and let­ters from Irene. And I re­ceived some­thing par­tic­u­larly spe­cial – a greet­ing card from Nicky Wire.

He wrote that it was a priv­i­lege to meet me and thanked me for sup­port­ing the band.

Now I knew I was def­i­nitely con­nected to my hero’s mum. An un­likely but beau­ti­ful friend­ship formed. Irene and I cor­re­sponded for years, send­ing Face­book mes­sages and let­ters, mostly writ­ing about things that had noth­ing to do with the Man­ics. From the chang­ing of the sea­sons, to sto­ries of our fam­i­lies and pets, and the po­lit­i­cal happenings in one an­other’s coun­tries.

And then, a meet­ing. In 2015, the Man­ics were tour­ing the UK for the 21st an­niver­sary of ar­guably their

She had a huge, warm smile, just like Nick. She gave me a big hug and rubbed my cold hands.

great­est al­bum, The Holy Bi­ble.

I de­cided to go to their Cardiff Cas­tle con­cert in Wales. Irene in­vited me over for a cup of tea.

Which brings us to Cardiff sta­tion, where I stood, wait­ing for a train that would bring me to Irene’s home. Fol­low­ing Irene’s di­rec­tions I caught a train, a bus and a taxi; and was even­tu­ally wel­comed into the Jones’ home by her hus­band Allen, and their dog Me­gan.

And then Irene came around the cor­ner.

‘‘Wel­come, Gary! Wel­come!’’ She had a huge, warm smile, just like Nick. She gave me a big hug and rubbed my cold hands.

Over four cups of cof­fee and three rounds of sand­wiches Irene, Allen and I talked for hours. I was a ra­dio DJ in my 20s, they were retired and near­ing their 80s. We got on like a house on fire.

We took self­ies, and then the time was gone. Allen rarely drove, but none­the­less got the car out es­pe­cially to drive me, with Irene and Me­gan sit­ting in the back, to the bus sta­tion. Irene boarded the bus with me to en­sure it was go­ing to Ystrad My­nach.

She took my hands in hers again and kissed them, be­fore step­ping off the bus and blow­ing kisses as the doors closed. We kept in touch.

When I moved to Hamil­ton last year, she was the first per­son to send in­ter­na­tional mail. Call­ing me ‘‘won­der­boy’’ – a ref­er­ence to my so­cial work and jour­nal­ism – she en­closed a fridge mag­net, a love heart carved out of wood, in­scribed with the mes­sage, ‘‘Hap­pi­ness is hav­ing Welsh friends’’.

So I was deeply sad­dened when I heard last week Irene had passed away af­ter a long bat­tle with leukemia. She was 80. I was aware she was sick but her death came as a shock.

With her son’s suc­cess, she’d carved out her own path, rais­ing money for char­ity, and ad­vo­cat­ing for so­cial causes. She even made the news, spear­head­ing a cam­paign to try to save wood­land from bull­doz­ers.

I like to think she saw some­thing in me that she saw in her sons – po­lit­i­cally charged writ­ers who liked to help oth­ers.

Irene re­peat­edly called me her hero, her won­der­boy.

I call her a bless­ing. And she was – to ev­ery­one she knew.

Above, Gary Far­row, cen­tre, with Manic Street Preach­ers mem­bers Nicky Wire, left, and James Dean Brad­field in 2015. Right, with Wire’s mother, Irene Jones.

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